FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — After a dismal offensive debut, the Atlanta Falcons seek comfort in knowing there are still 16 games to play in the NFL's expanded regular season.
Then again, how many more seasons are left for quarterback Matt Ryan, now 36? With an eye on Tampa Bay's Tom Brady — this week's opposing quarterback as the Falcons open their NFC South Division schedule by visiting the Buccaneers, the reigning Super Bowl champions — Ryan said he's not worried about dwindling opportunities.
"I don't think of it like that," Ryan said Wednesday. "The guy we're going against this week is 44, and he's pretty good."
Ryan's contract runs through 2023. He'd have to extend his career to 2029 to still be playing at 44.
"I would love to if I'm as healthy as he is and playing as great as he is right now," Ryan said of Brady, who spent his first 20 NFL seasons — and won six of his seven Super Bowl titles — with the New England Patriots. "That's great motivation for all of us."
Ryan, in his 14th season after being drafted third overall by the Falcons in 2008, has been unusually durable, missing only three games in his NFL career. He may need better blocking to make it through this season, though: He was sacked three times and the offense struggled in Sunday's 32-6 loss to the visiting Philadelphia Eagles in the opener for both teams.
Ahead of last weekend, the game was regarded as an opportunity for a strong start for Atlanta, because both the Falcons and Eagles were coming off four-win seasons and are breaking in first-time NFL head coaches. Instead, the Falcons were hurt by an avalanche of mistakes, including 12 penalties for 99 yards. Two rookie left guards, Drew Dalman and Jalen Mayfield, combined for three false starts.
There's also this grim reminder from running back Mike Davis, the former Carolina Panthers backup in his first season with his hometown Falcons: "It's not going to get any easier."
At Tampa Bay, the challenge for the Falcons only becomes more daunting. An offense held to 260 yards and two field goals by the Eagles will be asked to keep pace with a Tampa Bay attack that had four touchdown passes from Brady in last week's 31-29 home win over the Dallas Cowboys.
"I've played a lot of football against those guys on their defensive side of the ball, so I know they're very good and my message to our team is we have to be very good," Ryan said. "We can be, and let's focus on that."
Falcons coach Arthur Smith said he is considering options on his offensive line this week against the Buccaneers' imposing defensive front led by William Gholston, Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. Mayfield, a third-round pick this spring, was pushed to the starting spot when projected No. 1 left guard Josh Andrews was placed on injured reserve with a broken hand on Sept. 1.
Smith said he wants to avoid rash decisions, especially with first-year starters.
"There is a fine line between jerking the wheel and giving someone a chance to improve," said Smith, who noted that Mayfield played well in the first half before the Falcons fell too far behind and the Eagles picked up their pass rush.
"He's willing, and like I said he's a rookie in his first start against a really good front and he didn't back down," Smith added.
The Falcons added offensive line depth Wednesday by signing veterans Danny Isidora and Bryan Witzmann to their practice squad. Witzmann has appeared in 40 games, including 20 starts, for the Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and Carolina. Pennel had 29 tackles for Kansas City last season.
Ryan said Mayfield and Dalman did "exactly what you would want them to do" as a response to their second-half struggles against the Eagles: "Come back in and watch it and learn from it and get back to work."
"For some of these young guys it's their first opportunity to have a full-game evaluation and learn from that and make the adjustments," Ryan added. "I think it's going to be good for them."